How Not to Become a Catholic, Part Four

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in Mr. Tonkowich’s “How Not to Become a Catholic” series. The previous installments are available here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

When stating their objections to the Catholic Church, most Protestant Christians have two impressions. First, the Catholic Church is thought to be somewhere on a scale from hating the Bible to ignoring the Bible. Second, the Church is said to be devoid of grace and preaching works righteousness. Neither of these impressions is true, but to avoid becoming a Catholic, it’s important to turn them into solid rules for thought and life.

Rule #8—Believe that the Catholic Church and the Bible Don’t Mix.

Ask almost anyone over the age of sixty who was raised Catholic and you will hear how priests discouraged reading the Bible. “It’s too complicated. You will only get things wrong,” seems to have been the common priestly warning. It seems that many if not most Catholic families didn’t even have a copy of the Scriptures in the home.

To be safely not-Catholic, conclude from this that the Church has never wanted, does not want, and will never want people to read the Bible lest they think independently and become Baptists.

Or you could realize that this is nothing short of a scandal—a scandal not from a Bible-reading Protestant point of view, but a scandal from a thoroughly Catholic point of view.

1920 was way back in the “bad old days” when legend has it that priests everywhere were telling the Catholic faithful not to read the Bible. It was also the 1,500th anniversary of the death of St. Jerome one of the greatest Bible scholars who ever lived. Jerome, you may recall, famously said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”

To celebrate St. Jerome’s life and work, Pope Benedict XV wrote the encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus. In it, he took Jerome’s famous words very seriously. In fact, Benedict wrote that a central purpose of the encyclical was: “to promote among the children of the Church, and especially among the clergy, assiduous and reverent study of the Bible.” Bible study—“assiduous and reverent study” at that—was for everyone.

He went on to praise the Society of St. Jerome whose objective was “to put into the hands of as many people as possible the Gospels and Acts, so that every Christian family may have them and become accustomed to reading them.” Benedict had, in fact, helped found this Catholic version of the Gideons.

“Don’t read the Bible,” was apparently said by many a priest and nun. But they spoke contrary to the Church’s clear teaching that “assiduous and reverent” Bible study is for everyone.

Jumping forward to 1965, Dei Verbum, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, minces no words. The Church “earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful… to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the ‘excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 3:8).”

That folks were hurt and damaged by erring ministers is hardly a problem limited to the Catholic Church. And it is sad when the Bible is kept from any person, Christian or not.

On the other hand, to keep safe from becoming a Catholic, it is, as always, best to listen to disgruntled Catholics who grew up without Bibles and are still fuming rather than popes who actually know what the Church teaches.

It’s also helpful when avoiding Catholicism to keep in mind that, “Catholics added books to the Bible,” presumably in spite of the warning at the end of the Revelation that applies to all of Scripture:

I warn everyone who hears the prophetic words in this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book…. (Revelation 22:18)

But, of course, the Catholics (and the Eastern Orthodox) did not add Maccabees, Tobit, Wisdom, Judith, Sirach, and Baruch to the Bible.They were already there, part of the Christian Old Testament and later scuttled by the Protestant reformers. Why? One Protestant theologian told a now-Catholic friend of mine (who also has a Ph.D. in theology) it was because these books teach things that were “un-biblical.” That is, the “un-biblical” parts of the Bible had to be excised so that the entire Bible could be “biblical.”

James Tonkowich

James Tonkowich

Hmmm. Can you say, “Circular reasoning”?

His point was that the books teach Catholic doctrines that Protestants wanted to reject—things like Purgatory (2Maccabees 12:46). And arguments about the first-century Jewish canon aside, remember that Martin Luther also wanted Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Revelation voted off the island as well since they too were unbiblical, or at least unbiblical à la Martin Luther.

If you make the mistake of getting deep into history (see Rule #3) you will find that the Church’s canon of Scripture was intact from the fourth century until the Protestants tampered with it in the sixteenth. And, after all, the thought in Revelation 22:18 continues in verse 19: “…and if anyone takes away from the words in this prophetic book, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city described in this book.”

But let’s move on (Quickly! Quickly!).

Rule #9—Keep Insisting that Catholicism is a Grace-Free, Works Religion

A Presbyterian friend is appalled that I’ve become a Catholic. “My wife was raised Catholic,” he says, “and Catholicism has no grace in it at all. It’s all about works.”

I am genuinely sorry for his dear wife’s bad experience growing up Catholic. I am also genuinely sorry for the experience other friends of mine have had in the Presbyterian congregation where he serves as an elder. They left. Why? Because, they said, “That church has no grace in it at all. It’s all about works.”

Could it be that the grace in any given church is in the eyes of the beholder? Or could it be that grace and graciousness are functions not of settled doctrine, but of the spiritual lives of the people and ministers in any particular church—Protestant, Orthodox, or Catholic?

My friend’s Presbyterian doctrine is in The Westminster Confession of Faith, which clearly states, “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts…” (XIV.1).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church sounds eerily similar. In a section titled “Faith is a grace” we find: “Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him” (153. Italics in the original). A few paragraphs later it says, “Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man” (162).

“Our justification,” the Catechism says later (1996), “comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life” (Italics in the original).

I don’t know about you, but this seems to me a pretty clear statement about the centrality of grace in Catholic doctrine and spirituality. Or at least it’s as clear as the one in the Westminster Confession. Living in light of that grace without becoming impressed with our goodness is, on the other hand, one of the great struggles of the spiritual life on both banks of the Tiber.

“Then what is all this Catholic stuff about ‘merit’? Isn’t that works righteousness?”

Good question, but I’ll warn you, it’s another concept you will want continue to misconstrue if you want to avoid becoming Catholic. But, since you asked…

When my son was about four, we gave him three empty 35mm film canisters (Do you remember 35mm film canisters?). They were labeled: “Spend,” “Save,” and “Jesus.” Every week, we explained, he would receive three dimes as an allowance and he was to put one dime in each canister. He could bring the “Spend” dimes to the store to buy gum and candy that same day. His “Save” dimes, by contrast, would accumulate over time for bigger purchases. As to the “Jesus” dimes, he’d bring them to church as his offering to God.

When he placed his “Jesus” dimes in the offering basket, we praised him up and down for his generous giving. They were our dimes and we dictated the terms under which he would receive them every week, but in faithfulness and obedience, he did the right thing and was honored. If you will permit me to use the word, he “merited” our praise for his use of money.

God treats his sons and daughters the same way.

Catholic teaching on merit is clear:

With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man….  The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness. ‘Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due…. Our merits are God’s gifts’ (Catechism, 2007, 2008).

God by grace gives us the dimes, tells us how to use them, and honors us for our good works. Wasn’t it Jesus who told a story like that and gave us the hope to someday hear, “Well done good and faithful servant,” (Matthew 25:14-30)? But then Jesus’ parable couldn’t possibly have been about merit, could it?

I can come up with additional rules and can expand on the nine I’ve written (book publishers please take note). But you get the idea. As long as I followed the rules, the Catholic Church remained strange, problematic, and suspicious. Once I broke the rules, stopped listening to hearsay, and began studying, the Catholic Church became irresistible.

Are there difficulties? Of course, but as Blessed John Henry Newman, a convert to the Church in the 1840s, wrote, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject; difficulties and doubts are incommensurate.” Difficulties are part of seeing through a glass darkly and, as such, are scattered throughout the Bible, inherent in every theological system, and buried in every church’s history and every human soul.

Are there doubts? I began with piles, but over ten years of reading, thinking, and discussing, they have all been sorted out. I moved steadily from, “The Catholic Church is not the solution, but…” to “The Catholic Church is probably not the solution, but…” to “The Catholic Church may be the solution, but…” to “The Catholic Church is probably the solution, but…” to “The Catholic Church is the solution, but…” to surrender. The Catholic Church is and always has been the solution.

As Richard John Neuhaus, another convert, noted, “Rest comes with surrender, with being shaken out of the state of incurvatus est [being turned in upon oneself], with submission to an other, and finally to the Other. The Other is embodied, as in the body of Christ, the Church.”

And it’s good to be at rest. So let me invite you to break all these rules and find rest as well.



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  • Joe DeVet

    When the priest who was to witness our marriage found out my wife-to-be was a convert to the Catholic faith, he warned me, “This convert will make you a better Catholic than you plan to be!”  These prophetic words have played out in my life in wonderful ways for which I give praise to God.

    This theme continues for us all, as very well illustrated by the four essays concluded here.  Praise be to God!

  • Pargontwin

    Actually, the truth of the “legend” about Catholics being told in the 1920s not to read the Bible depends on where you were.  It was certainly true in NYC.  My father grew up in the ’20s and often told us how, although he studied the Bible in school, under the direction of the priests who taught there, they were also told not to read it without such direction.  Paradoxically, however, most New York Catholics DID own family Bibles.  My grandmother had a beautiful one that went to my youngest brother, since he was the only one of us who was blessed with children. 

  • James Stagg

    A marvelous series, Mr. Jim.  I anxiously await “the book”.  Bless you!

  • ColdStanding

    Agreed!  My convert wife took courses to qualify her for teaching the Catholic schools.  She would ask me about this and that, & I’d do my best to answer; to really think about what was asked of me.  Well, this has awakened a great zeal to know, understand and live more fully the Catholic faith.  From day one she is a wonderful gift, beyond my deserving, from God.  

  • Anneg

    Guess it really depends where you were. A friend was born in the early ’40s, lived on Long Island and went to parish school there. Her mother, from the same area, read her Bible 15 minutes every night, partly to gain the partial indulgence from the devotional practice for as long as she remembers.

  • Knowing Sacred Scripture and emphasizing its importance in dialoguing with Protestant and Evangelical Christians is the best way to promote the truths of the Catholic Church.  Both Catholic and Protestant Christians believe “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26) but it is the way/outlook you have on the verse that we differ.  Just like many non-Catholics say Catholic focus on Mary to much, but on the contrary Mary leads us to Jesus Christ just like works come forth from the faith we have in Jesus Christ.  It is a radical shift in thought, outlook, and worldview from seeing through the eyes of a Protestant/Evangelical Christian and from a Catholic Christian.  

  • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

    This has been a great series!
    If you’ve enjoyed it too, then I’d recommend supplementing it with the latest book by the famous Religious Sociologist, now turned Catholic, Christian Smith:
    How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps

  • I’ve been leading a Bible study group for a couple years now.  We’ve covered many topics and done several different commercial Catholic studies.  We have an older woman who, sure as rain in spring, tells each Bible study group, that “[Catholics] weren’t allowed to read the Bible until a few years ago.”  We’ve given up trying to correct this.  We are happy if we can keep her from launching into a discussion about women priests.

    True story.

  • Vitto

    Doctrinal technicalities don’t matter to most people. Real life stuff like this ,
    is what makes people leave or not join the church. Watch this BBC documentary about the Irish Church. Do not be mistaken by the beggining – it is NOT only about the child rape scandals, but much more.

  • chaco

    Oh  – Sweet rest !  Imagine Jesus resting in his mother’s arms with Joseph the protector gazing in awe. [Much like a peaceful cat in the home of a kind owner. I’ve heard of a renowned monk who, when asked; “Who has influenced you most in your studies ?”  answered; “My cat – with it’s trusting nature.”]  MARY is the ARCHETYPE of Holy Mother Church. Like the Arch containing the 10 Commandments, Mary may not herself be the Power of God, but God has endowed her with the Power to protect. [Recall what happened when someone touched the Arch containing the Commandments.] We can rest peacefully in the “Arms” of Holy Mother Church because God Has endowed Her with the Power to protect the Truth that sets us free. 

  • chaco

    Are you “Painting the Whole Church with one big brush”. Might I recommend statistics showing a much lower % of abuse among Catholic clergy than among other denominations & public education. Not to excuse the actions overtly highlighted by the media, but please consider praying for their souls in light of how serious their offenses are (see Mt. 11: 20-24). This seems like a more Godly response than a stereotype of Catholics.

  • MaryK

    Thank you for your wisdom in the writing of this series.  I found myself nodding my head up and down, for i was one of those who asked all these questions.  I grew up Protestant, and i still treasure much of what i learned there, but unfortunately took in all the mistrust of Catholics in the process.  I was so sure i knew what was in their minds and hearts (so much for not judging one another), that i steered as clear of them as i could.  It took the Grace of God, prayer and study to find out the truth. I am forever overwhelmed with wonder at the privilege of being Catholic.

    We still face these attacks on our faith, sometimes from within, perhaps from those who failed to understand, had bad experiences or been hurt by the Church.  So, it remains for us to help change the perceptions and remain faithful regardless of how much we are villified by those whose minds are closed.

  • Chrstian63

    You gave your son 3 dimes a week? Now I have another reason to not be a Catholic. 🙂 Great article! God help me, I’m beginning to think.

  • MaryK

    I hear you – only 3 dimes?  I think I gave my 4 children 3 quarters a week, and I’m sure to be older than James, and I was a single mom for some of those years. Sometimes they had to give me back 1 quarter each to help pay the electric bill. Well, that’s a stretch I guess. 🙂

    So with all that preamble, these articles almost made me wish i could become Catholic all over again, just for the joy of it. But then i would have missed all these 40 years of wonder at the grace and mercy of God who took this died in the wool fundamentalist protestant and powered my feeble boat across the Tiber. So, if it’s okay with the author, i’ll likely borrow some of these concepts to help RCIA participants next year. Thank you, Mr Tonkowich and CE for giving it to all of us.  I look forward to your book.